Edinburgh (pronounced ed-in-burr-a) is the beautiful capital of Scotland. I cannot stress on the word 'beautiful' enough. It is not big by most standards and walking through the alleyways, exploring the city was tremendous fun. With the Edinburgh Castle being the highlight of the skyline, the undulating streets and cobbled pathways, made exploration a pleasure - the view that met one's eyes at every turn and climb never ceased to please or surprise.
The buildings seemed to reek of history, the streets too ... The entire city, actually. I occasionally felt transported back to medieval times - the city truly seemed to come alive with history while still being somewhat cosmopolitan.To add to the charm, it has been home to the who's who of the literary world, from Sir Walter Scott to J.K.Rowling, and McCall Smith of course. Every nook had a story to tell, quaint pubs with quaint-er names would beckon silently for an experience from an earlier age, filled with tales of famous regulars, long dead now and rolling in their grave ...
I had decided to make a day trip to Edinburgh from London. However, this was easier said than done. I ended up taking the day train from London King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverley and the journey took almost 5 hours. One could have reached Paris or Brussels in half the time from London. However, as it turned out, the trip was my favorite of the entire Isles trip and worth the time and expense. I reached Edinburgh around 1430 hrs and was taking the overnight sleeper train back. This basically meant that I spent more time traveling than actually being in Edinburgh. I ought to have named this post 'Edinburgh in an afternoon', me thinks!
The train journey was comfortable, provided decent birding opportunities, and the scenery whizzing past the window was as picturesque as it can get. Apart from a profusion of gulls and terns at every turn, I even managed to spot a red grouse, the most famous avian resident of Scotland. The red grouse is endemic to Scotland and akin to the roadrunner in Texas - from Whiskey houses to pubs, the 'red grouse' name would be hard to miss in the area although the bird itself might be rather elusive.
Anyway, after getting out of the station, my agenda as proposed by a friend was to walk to 'The Mound' for apparently lovely views of the Edinburgh castle. I was half-way there, when I noticed a hoarding with directions to the National Museum of Scotland and the museum hound that I am, sniffed my way to the museum instead. Indeed, I could swing by the Mound for the Castle view anytime while the museum closed at 5 pm.
The museum was well-worth the couple of hours I spent there, with my favorite exhibits being the larger-than-life Millenium Clock and little pieces associated with the origin of life - a rare edition of Darwin's Origin of Species and a vintage Nomenclature of British Insects annotated by Darwin, apart from a stuffed scaly-throated earthcreeper collected by Darwin during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and this beetle collection ... Their collections on all things famously Egyptian were also rather nice.
So, off I trekked to the museum across Waverley and the North Bridge, when I came across a tour of the so-called 'underground city' or dungeons of Edinburgh (which came highly recommended). They had a 5.30 pm slot open for the Historical and Ghost tour which I promptly grabbed. So after my visit to the museum and grabbing a bite at the Piemaker, I set off to the dungeon tour.
The dungeon tour basically takes you into the dungeons or vaults that were uncovered in the city not too long ago. I went on the Niddry's Wynd (wynds are minor streets that come out of the Royal Mile, together forming a fishbone structure) tour conducted by the Auld Reekie company. The tours tend to be either historical or spooky, or both. The costumed guides are pretty good, dress the part with capes and gowns, and walk the talk. They are amusing, informative, and entertaining all at once, which makes the tour worthwhile and great bang for the buck.
I am not a big fan of the supernatural genre in entertainment (B-grade horror movies and Stephen King novels are a big no-no for me). That said, I did enjoy the historical and ghost tour - I did not really have a choice and this was pretty much the only one that suited the duration I had. The vaults were where the social outcasts - thieves, rogues, charlatans, poor, and homeless - during the industrial revolution (and earlier) lived. They were pitch black, damp, and dreary - and the perfect setting for gloomy stories concocted by and involving the criminal underworld and poor folk of the era. From wiccans to poltergeists and banshees, they pretty much cover the spook spectrum.
The tour guide even took us to an apparently active Wiccan temple that is supposedly still used by a coven of witches and narrate other wonderfully entertaining stories. The tours dare you to step inside this circle of stones that is cursed and up the eeriness-factor with suitable stories and experiences. They really do a terrific job and are good fun.
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour which ended with some Scotch Whiskey and Scottish Shortbread at a pub called the Banshee Labyrinth. This was on Niddry Street and very close to St. Cecilia's Hall which, as you will soon find out, was the real reason I was in Edinburgh.
One of my favorite authors of fiction is Alexander McCall Smith (AMcCS) who has written the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (N1LDA), the Isabel Dalhousie series, and the 44 Scotland Yard series amongst others. In the N1LDA, the way he brings to life the (little known) country of Botswana, its people, the land, beliefs, and customs is impressive. Each time I read a book from the series, I am transported back to the country I grew up in and have such fond memories of.
I wrote to him before the trip and received a warm reply in which he told me about the event happening at St. Cecilia's Hall. You read that right. A famous author actually replied to (fan)mail personally and later went on to remember me and the email conversations perfectly! I planned my visit to Edinburgh to include attending the event and meeting AMcCS.
The evening started off with a small piece on the bagpipes ('Professor Edward Mendelson's Visit to Edinburgh') that was composed and performed by Clare Lynas (a student of the University of Edinburgh), followed by an introduction by AMcCS, a lecture on the works of the poet W.H. Auden, titled Auden and 'the Flesh We are' by Edward Mendelson from Columbia University, and ended spectacularly with a performance comprising of 'The Willow-wren and the Stare' (a poem of Auden's) set to tune by Tom Cunningham, sung by Amy Strachan and accompanied by Stuart Hope on the piano. This aided tremendously in my new-found appreciation of Auden's works and the choice of poem for the performance was spot on - it was simple, beautiful, mellifluous.
After this, I met with AMcCS who interacted with me for a little while, took photos with me (requesting the photographer who was covering the event to do so), and gladly signed all the books of his that I had brought with me from India ... As you can imagine, I was over the moon :) He was genuinely warm, charming, and cheerful, with an avuncular smile and gentle humour that lit up the room until the end of the programme. In all it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in Edinburgh, with a heartwarming Scottish experience.
This was followed by a lovely dinner (albeit alone) at the David Bann restaurant which came recommended highly especially for a vegetarian (well, at least the time of this trip) like me. Their asiette of desserts (vanilla & malt whisky pannacotta, raspberry & whisky chocolates, hot pear & passion fruit tart, with raspberry icecream & pineapple sorbet) was spectacular (except for the pear tart which was a tad too 'eggy' for me)! Incidentally, Edinburgh is one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities I have come across - almost every restaurant I saw had darn good vegetarian options and whatever I sampled was extremely tasty. The Scots are said to have an affinity to fried foods like fried Mars bars, fried haggis, and what not - I was rather disappointed at not finding a place to try a fried Mars bar :(
From here I walked most of the Royal Mile, back to Waverley through the market side this time, and onwards to Calton Hill. Here, one could see the National Monument (which is architecturally based on the Parthenon) and the Nelson Monument, apart from fantastic views of the city, Arthur's Seat, and the Firth-of-Forth.
It was beautiful at sunset and made even more romantic with the slight drizzle, unobstructed views of the gorgeous city of Edinburgh, the countryside at a distance, and the sea. The only thing missing was the presence of the love of my life with me - alas, he was left behind in London with a business meeting and dinner at a lousy restaurant to look forward to! I think he would have liked Auld Reekie, the funkiest sobriquet I have come across. The way the city combined medieval relics with modern architecture, royal grandeur and gothic churches with contemporary kitsch and avant-garde character so seamlessly and created a unique identity amalgamating all these is visibly obvious and yet admirable.
I ambled down the hill with just enough time to visit the Mound for a view of the Edinburgh Castle after walking through St. Andrew's Square. The Castle looms large as one nears the Mound and is a sight to behold - surrounded by emerald green gardens that go along the valley around the hill. At night, the castle is lit up like a permanent firework display that is accentuated by the acres and acres of dark gardens all around.
It was raining as I head to the Waverley Station for my Caledonian Express train back to London, but who am I to complain after a glorious day outdoors?